Research and Entrepreneurship

Deciding to become an academic, was neither an easy nor a fast decision. I remember I was going around a lot until I decided to start a PhD: I basically took a 9 months of retreat in order to decide what do I want to do with my life (while doing my compulsory military service :P). And deciding to stick to academia after I finished my PhD took me even longer… I actually still thinking about it from time to time. What were my options though? I wanted to have a life of exploration and learning, of flexibility and self-organisation, of connection with the world and communication with it. What other job could offer me these posibilities?

For the past few years, I’m realising more and more that there is another profile (besides that of the academic) that offers similar posibilities, one that I’ve been lingering on with for a while now: The Entrepreneur. I’ve been interested in entrepreneurship since my undergraduate days, but my interest surfaced more and more when I started organising Alumni Business Camp. This is an event targeted at enterpreneurs, from which I got in touch with the entrepreneurship world in a more formal way, learning about concepts, and funding rounds, and growth methodologies. In parallel I attended several seminars and workshops on entrepreneurship at my university and there I was, pitching business ideas in front of potential investors (in simulation).

But I thought I was living a double life, one of a wannabe academic and one of a wannabe entrepreneur. What I am realising lately though, is that the lives of an enterpreneur and of an academic researcher are not that much different as it first seem. There are some very big similarities in the way of thinking and working, even though at first sight enterpreneurs and researchers might seem as if coming from different planets. These similarities are important to point out, as it can help people transition from one profile to the other. The differences as well, are maybe even more important (although more well known) so that the transition can be a successful one.

Why entrepreneurs and researchers are similar

We both deal with the unknown

A very big part of our work, both as researchers and as entrepreneurs, is to deal with the unknown. We are seasoned to solving problems that noone else has solved before (of course by stepping on the shoulders of giants). It is deeply engraved in our culture and, in many cases, we are totally bored if we have to deal with the trivial and the already known. And I often believe that this is an attitude that if you are missing, you cannot be a researcher (and an entrepreneur either probably). Researchers deal with the unknown by trying to uncover nature’s secrets. Entrepreneurs deal with the unknown by trying to uncover the market’s secrets. Figure out what the market needs (or doesn’t) and bring it there.

A lot of our work depends on trial and error, but obviously there are more efficient ways to solve a problem than brute force. That’s where experience comes, and in both places experience comes with burning yourself and embracing failure. The more you fail, the more prone you are to be successful afterwards, as long as you reflect and learn from your failures.

We need to fight for our funding

A big part of a researcher’s life is evolving around obtaining grants. In most countries, the basic salary of a assistant/professor is enough for a decent living. Therefore you don’t need to hunt for grants in order to survive, but grants are a very important if you want to do serious research, cause they allow you to acquire equipment, hire a team and grow your laboratory. Same as in hunting for investors for your early stage startup. But the main similarity is not in our need for external effort, as much on how we try to obtain them.

Writing a grant is a lot like the following recipe:

  • Start with 1kg of your initial dream idea
  • Shake it so that it fits the needs of the society
  • Add seasoning for keeping your reviewers happy
  • Put the mix into a form that addresses the requirements of the funding agency

The key word is adaptation and investigation. Meaning that you need to adapt your original idea to the needs of your target audience in order to be successful? Does this sound familiar to the entrepreneurs out there?

Fame is gold!

And reaching first is of unparalleled importance!

For better or worse, academia is to a big part about getting known in your field. Once you are known, your opinions are respected (oh yeah, there are haters there too), heard and reproduced. It is easier to get ‘grants, which increases your chances of getting grants and your fame further. It is like a positive feedback loop. Of course fame doesn’t come easy, and it can also be lost at any time. But its importance is not questioned.

This is very much related to the ‘reaching first’ dogma. Research is a race, just like entrepreneurship. Many people run after the same ideas, trying different things until they make them work (or they convince everyone else that they do). The first one gets the credit, the rest… well, they just need to find something else to stay busy. This is similar to being first on the market, which allows you to keep the biggest share of while the rest need to pivot.

Why researchers are not entrepreneurs (usually)

Of course researchers and entrepreneurs are not the same spieces, and we do have our differences. That’s very easy to agree on, since it is very common for great researchers to fail miserably as entrepreneurs. But I think the differences are not as deeply rooted as the similarities, and by understanding them better, we maybe can learn how to train better researchers for their much desired spin-off.

We are closed inside our labs

Research, usually, is happening in a laboratory. Even if you are a field researcher (e.g. marine-biologists), and you are active in the great outdoors, your lab is still a place where not so many people hangout. I accept the exception in social sciences :) When you are testing nature and want to understand its ways, this is a good thing. You need to have a very controlled, closed environment where you measure things accurately in order to understand the influence of each factor. In entrepreneurship, this sounds like a dream. You cannot deal with the market as a controlled closed environment, and that’s one of the difficulties in transitioning from academia to… real life.

We are proud to share our work

There is a huge contrast in the way we like to talk about our work in academia and entrepreneurship. In most cases, researchers love to share their work, and to a very big extend we are obliged to do so. And I am not talking about writing blog posts about your latest findings. I am referring to full disclose not only of your results, but to the whole process of obtaining them, analysing them! And this is for a good reason: full disclosure ensures progress in sciences, as researchers can learn from your mistakes and build upon your successes.

In entrepreneurship, this is almost always the opposite (especially when starting up): you share your work with noone and for no reason. In some cases you might disclose some vague information about a part of your process, but this is always very carefully monitored and very often has a marketing purpose (or when patenting, where a full disclosure is required). The business model is kept in a safe, while the methodology of research is out there crying to be read.

And often researchers are not willing to switch this mindset…

Our research is our little baby

This is one of the most common issues that I have heard of when transitioning from academia to entrepreneurship. In research, we are very often in love with our work. We have spent so much time doing something that noone else has done, we understand every single aspect of the problem and the solution and we are the global outmost authority in what we do. It is very difficult to convince a researcher to change even a small aspect of his/her work. Especially if this is so that it keeps someone else happy (here you read ‘the market’).

This is a very powerful aspect of research. Sometimes you need to keep doing what you are doing even if everybody else is telling you how wrong you are, even if you are not able to get funding for your idea or your colleagues turn the other way when they meet you at the corridor. Scientific progress is often associated with crazy ideas that people kept insisting for a long long period of time (such as believing that the sun is in the center of the solar system). I believe that Entrepreneurship is totally the other way around: you need to do whatever you need to do in order to keep your market happy. It doesn’t matter if the product does not make any sense, or if it is wrong, you still need to find ways to sell it as long as the market wants it.

Of course innovation exists in entrepreneurship and you need to bring ideas that the market is not asking, but this has to happen in careful increments. Imagine selling geography globes in the times where people believed the Earth was flat!

I believe this is the most difficult switch in mindset, maybe because I am doubting this would be a switch I would be willing to make myself. But while this quality is essential (to some extend) for research, it is devastating (to some extend) for entrepreneurs.

There we are! Maybe we found it! Maybe this is the one little differences that really makes us apart!

Lecturer on Robotics and Biomechanics
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